The San Francisco 49ers traded their started strong side linebacker on Thursday, dealing Eli Harold to the Detroit Lions for a conditional seventh round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. On Thursday, head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch discussed the trade, and considering what they had to say, it was not a surprising trade.
Harold offers solid work setting the edge against the run, but in his three seasons with the 49ers, he never emerged as a serious presence in the pass rush. The evolution of the league into more passing, and thus more nickel and dime packages means a traditional edge setter does not have the same value he used to. And given the limitations of the 53-man roster, and more importantly, the 46-man game day active roster, versatility is necessary. Lynch said as much in a Thursday interview with KNBR.
“That’s a tough one because Eli’s been everything we could ask for in terms of the way he comes to work each and every day. It’s just, our SAM linebacker position’s one that less and less is on the field because of the way people are playing this game — and that’s with three wide receivers. So, really, your base set is your nickel, and so our SAM has to be able to do other things. We probably, directly related to the Reuben Foster offseason, we gathered a lot of stack linebackers that we think can play at a high level. So you can use your stack linebackers, your SAM linebacker as a rusher in your nickel defense, or you can use him in different spots as a linebacker.”
It’s pretty clear Lynch and Shanahan are on the same page when it comes to the issues of roster-building and how it impacted this move.
“The main stuff was looking ahead on how our 53 is going to be and how our game day roster is going to be and kind of the decisions that go into that that people don’t realize and players don’t realize either. It has to do with how much you’re on the field in base personnel to nickel personnel to special teams to who’s the backup to the D-Linemen and to the SAMs and the inside linebackers. All of those guys are interchangeable in how you use them. It’s pretty complicated.”
As for why now on the deal? Both men said they wanted to make sure they could find him a spot and the time where he would have a good opportunity. They could have waited until final roster cuts, but in dealing him now, they give him one, maybe two games to show the staff what he can do. If he gets cut, so be it, but he is better served with this opportunity now.